Thursday, August 14, 2008

P.S. 24 principal does Tweed's dirty work

by John DeSio
Riverdale Review 08/14/2008

Though the budget rearrangement at P.S. 24 might be painful now, Principal Philip Scharper insists it is necessary to protect the fiscal health of the school later. But some school insiders insist that unwise spending by Scharper is the real cause of the school's budget woes.

Despite the City Council's having announced with much fanfare the restoration of public school budgets across the Borough, Scharper said that his school has still lost money and that he has been forced to take actions to deal with those cuts and potential future cuts.

The City Council had announced the restoration of $258,735 in funds to P.S. 24, claiming that the school had not lost one penny of its budget from last year. But Scharper noted that $80,000 cut from the school in April was never restored and that some of the money the City Council has taken credit for would have come to the school regardless.

Depending on the math, Scharper said the school has lost somewhere between $45,000 and $90,000 this year, though he admitted he was hazy on those numbers.

"There are certain ways of their figuring the cuts," said Scharper. "Actually, in real dollars, it does come out to less than we had originally."

Scharper added that he has designed this year's budget to deal not only with those cuts but also with the potential for additional mid-year cuts and the future implementation of the "fair student funding" budget program, which would allocate funds based on factors such as a school's poverty rate and would almost certainly cost P.S. 24 substantial funding.

"So you have to start planning for how you're going to work on your budget with substantially less money," said Scharper.

To that end, Scharper has reduced the number of cluster teachers at P.S. 24 from ten to eight, a cut he said was in line with the Department of Education's standard of one cluster teacher per 100 students. Scharper has also moved the cluster teacher who served as the school librarian back into the classroom. And in the third grade classes, the average number of students has risen to 29 due to the combining of five classrooms into four. The mandated class size for third grade is 28.

"The point is, thinking ahead, this seemed to be the time to put the ratio of cluster teachers to students in line," said Scharper. He added that he would implement a plan to staff the library using teachers and parent volunteers, which would preserve open access to the library. He did note that the library would not be open a full day, though he said that it did not need to be anyway.

A budget cut is one problem, but multiple sources within the school (both parents and teachers) have complained that Scharper's spending priorities are out of place in two areas: physical plant upgrade and professional development.

Scharper has put money aside in this year's budget to partially rewire the old wing of P.S. 24 so that air conditioners can be installed in 22 classrooms. Right now, only the newer wing of the school is air conditioned, and Scharper said it was imperative to correct this disparity.

"That's something that just seems like it needs attention," said Scharper. "We have to start that." Though it is a physical upgrade, Scharper noted that such a project could not be funded by the School Construction Authority, but had to be paid for by the school itself. The work would be done partially over a few years, and Scharper did not yet have an estimate for how much it would take from this year's budget.

One teacher, who asked not to be identified, was furious that school money would be spent on air conditioners rather than teachers.

"It's only hot enough for air conditioning a few days each school year," said the teacher. "For that we're losing a full-time librarian?"

Scharper is also dedicating budget funds to a professional development contract with Columbia Teachers College, which will focus on helping teachers teach reading and writing.

"I feel like professional development is our lifeline," said Scharper, noting that the contract would cost a good "chunk of money." He added, "It's not as much as a full teacher, but its getting there." The average cost of a teacher at P.S. 24 is $75,000 per year, he said.

Another teacher, who also asked not to be identified, said that Scharper needs to get his priorities fixed. "The classroom, not professional development or air conditioning, is what's important," said the teacher. "Philip Scharper needs to realize that."